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Standout Su’a Cravens gives USC more safety at linebacker

USC linebacker Su'a Cravens has given the Trojans' defense stability and versatility.

USC linebacker Su’a Cravens has given the Trojans’ defense stability and versatility.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press )

Chris Claiborne saw Su’a Cravens’ potential. Cravens knew Claiborne’s resume.

When Cravens joined Claiborne’s passing-league team before his senior year in high school, he was a two-way star and top college prospect.

Claiborne, a first-round NFL draft pick who played eight pro seasons, is the only USC player to win the Butkus Award, presented annually to college football’s top linebacker.

Four years later, Cravens, 20, is USC’s strongside linebacker and one of 10 semifinalists for the Butkus Award.

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“I wouldn’t even think I would be in this position,” Cravens said.

Or, for that matter, playing the linebacker position.

“I still don’t consider myself a linebacker,” said Cravens, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound junior. “I consider myself a safety playing linebacker.”

Claiborne chuckled when informed of Cravens’ comment.

Like everyone who has watched Cravens evolve during his three seasons at USC, Claiborne has seen Cravens adapt his playmaking skills after coaches moved him from safety before the 2014 season.

“He’s gotten so much better since he embraced it,” Claiborne said.

Cravens was selected first-team all-conference last season and is on track to repeat. He is the second-leading tackler and has a team-best 7 1/2 tackles for losses for a rejuvenated team that knocked off previously unbeaten Utah two weeks ago and is in contention for the South Division title under interim Coach Clay Helton.

“He may be the best defender in the Pac-12,” said Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham, who is distantly related to Cravens by marriage. “We didn’t fare very well against USC, obviously, and Su’a was a big reason for that.”

Stanford Coach David Shaw said Cravens could play any position on defense other than interior line.

“There are so many things he does that are uncanny,” Shaw said. “No matter who’s blocking him, he can get off of it…. He’s fast enough to catch up to anybody.… He’s one of those guys you have to take notice of on every play, and you have to be careful with the ball because he’ll take it away from you.”

Arizona Coach Rich Rodriguez is preparing to face Cravens and the Trojans on Saturday night at the Coliseum.

“There’s not a weakness or even a shade of weakness in anything in his game,” Rodriguez said. “If you didn’t have to play him, he’d be a lot more fun to watch.”

Cravens credits Claiborne, the 1998 Butkus Award winner, with helping to mold him, though the process wasn’t always smooth.

During early workouts together, Claiborne told Cravens he did not back-paddle, he shuffled. He told him to open his hips, to get his eyes out of the backfield.

“The first couple of months with him we would argue back and forth,” Cravens said. “We were butting heads because he’s a competitor and I’m a competitor.”

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) sacked by USC linebacker Su'a Cravens in the first half.

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) sacked by USC linebacker Su’a Cravens in the first half.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Said Claiborne: “He thought he knew it all because he was so good among his peers.”

Cravens developed into one of the nation’s top high school players at Vista Murrieta High and was selected as the USA Today defensive player of the year.

He graduated early and enrolled at USC in January 2013 and became a Freshman All-American. Cravens appeared on his way to fulfilling a goal by joining safeties such as Troy Polamalu and Ronnie Lott in Trojans lore.

But when linebacker Jabari Ruffin suffered a season-ending knee injury during training camp last year, Cravens was moved to linebacker.

He initially resisted the change, but came around after speaking with his father and Claiborne.

“I told him it was about development,” Claiborne said, “and ‘Hey, you’re not the same little scrawny kid you were when you left high school. You’re going to move closer to the ball and make as many plays as you can.’”

Said Cravens: “I’d be stupid to ignore one of the USC legends’ advice.”

Cravens has found a home at linebacker — “I’m playing the position I want to play because I want to win,” he said — but foresees his future as an NFL safety in the mold of the Seattle Seahawks’ Kam Chancellor.

“When it comes to the run game, I think I’m going to be a lot more improved than most [defensive backs] because they’ve never really been in the box,” he said.

Cravens said he also has grown from navigating his way through the tumult of the last three seasons at USC, which have featured the firing of coach Lane Kiffin, the hiring and firing of Steve Sarkisian and Helton’s second stint as interim coach.

“It’s a complete 180 from what I thought was going to happen,” he said. “But then I came to USC for much more than football, much more than a coach or for what anybody could try to sell me on in a recruiting pitch.

“I came here because I loved SC. I grew up [in Los Angeles] for a little bit. SC was in my blood.”

Claiborne played three seasons at USC before the Detroit Lions made him the ninth pick in the 1999 draft.

Cravens maintains that he has not made a decision about whether he will make himself available for the 2016 NFL draft. He said he would consider factors such as his degree status, who the next USC head coach might be, “the whole situation in its entirety.”

“I’m not going to go out to the draft if I’m a third-round draft pick,” he said. “I’m not going to be stupid and chase money and break my leg and then what? I’m back here with no eligibility to play.

“I’m not going to think about it until the season is over.”

Cravens still has a goal of winning a national title, of returning USC “to the way it was when I was watching it as a little kid.… I want it to be great again.”

Regardless of whether his USC career ends after this season or next, he hopes his legacy goes beyond what he accomplishes on the field.

“I would hope that everybody remembers me as I was SC first, before anything,” he said. “SC all the way…. I was down for the school through thick and thin, and I’ll always be.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein


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